When Lynn Welch first started umpiring professional tennis matches, her mom and dad back in South Portland would watch the television screen closely, hoping for a glimpse of their daughter up in the chair calling the scores. More often than not, they were disappointed.
“My mother would say, ‘We didn’t get to see you. Nothing happened,’” says Welch with a laugh. “I’d say, ‘Mom, you don’t understand. That’s a good thing.’”
Welch, 57, just retired from umpiring this past fall. She lives in Hilton Head, S.C., but visits her 92-year-old father at the family homestead in South Portland frequently. Her mother’s passing two years ago was a catalyst to her calling it quits. So was the fact that after 22 years of officiating, she’d pretty much done it all.
Despite her efforts to stay out of the spotlight, Welch made quite a name for herself as a tennis umpire. In her 22-year career, she was in the chair for 12 U.S. Open finals (six singles), one Wimbledon semifinal, and for the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. She’s the only American woman to have earned the highest international ranking for officials – the Gold Badge. During that time, Welch earned a reputation for her cool, calm demeanor and her clear, “radio” voice that players and fans enjoyed hearing.
“People would say, ‘We always love when you’re in the chair. We don’t have a clue what the other umpires are saying,’” she says.
If it weren’t for her balky knees – she’s had eight surgeries – Welch might have had a professional career on the court instead of above it. As a high school player, she won three Maine state singles titles in 1972, ’73 and ’74. She got a scholarship to play tennis at Rollins College in Florida, a tennis powerhouse then.
She credits a couple of people for helping her develop her tennis game: her older brother, who encouraged her to start playing at 13, and her high school coach, who would set up challenge matches against the boys – and against him.
“If anyone beat him, he’d take us all out for a steak dinner,” she recalls. “We became tough competitors.”
After college, Welch became a teaching professional and continued to play in doubles tournaments for teaching pros. She was the United States Tennis Association National Women’s Clay Court Doubles champion in 1989.
In 1991, she attended a line umpire clinic and her career took a straight line trajectory from there, culminating in her earning the Gold Badge in 2003. Since then, she has spent 30 weeks a year on the road, and has visited more than 30 countries from England to Greece to China, and exotic places, such as Bali, Trinidad, and Doha.
“Always being a Type A, I made the goal to get to the top level,” she says. “It’s been so fascinating to travel around the world and to have colleagues everywhere. I would pinch myself sometimes.”
Wherever Welch was, she made sure to email her parents every day. She’d write about peeking up and seeing Princess Diana and little William in the royal box at Wimbledon. She talked about how intimidating the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena) were before their matches. Her mom always said, “Don’t let your head get too big,” Welch recalls. “I feel like I never did. I was always the kid from Maine.”
Welch’s dad, still sharp at 92, likes to trumpet her achievements.
“He made me promise I would mention that I’m in three halls of fame,” Welch says a little sheepishly (the Maine Sports Legend Hall of Honors, the Maine Sports Hall of Fame and the Rollins College Sports Hall of Fame). “They lived vicariously through me.”
Now that she has retired, Welch plans to do some writing, and enjoy the opportunity to rest, relax, train her new dog, Mia, and reflect on her career.
“It was a hot seat at times,” she says wistfully. “It was also the best seat in the house.”